According to a new study released by the Brookings Institute, Middle-aged white Americans- particularly those with a high school degree or less- are dying at a higher rate than other groups- reversing a century long trend. The researchers who discovered this phenomenon identified these deaths as “deaths of despair.”
The deaths are from a myriad of causes, but chief among them are suicide, drug overdoses, and alcoholic liver disease. Additionally, the researchers found that while deaths from heart disease and cancer have been dropping for other demographics, that trend did not continue with lower educated white Americans. The researchers hypothesize that these deaths are a result of deterioration in economic and social well being as a result of dwindling job opportunities for those with a high school diploma or less.
For these Americans, the bleak economic climate has contributed to other social problems. As a group, they are more likely to be unmarried, unemployed and in poor health. It is this despair that made many of these people vote for Donald Trump in November- a vote that may very well make their lives even harder.
Earlier in the year I had heard about the preliminary findings of this report (Josh Marshall early on flagged these figures as important in understanding the rise of Donald Trump). But upon hearing the researcher on NPR, I began to think about somethings else: Not only is this a demographic that overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump, it is also a demographic that tunes into FOX news.
Why do I mention this? Because I think it’s worth noting that we have an entire right wing media system that has been dedicated to making people fearful and angry as a marketing strategy. We have a political party that has stoked these feelings of rage, fear and resentment. Many of Donald Trump’s voters were not only desperate about their economic situation, but full of rage as well. They saw in Trump someone who felt their rage– a rage that had been cultivated for years on Fox news and conservative talk radio.
Aside from the negative health consequences of despair, we know that fear and anger have negative health consequences. When in a constant state of stress, anxiety, fear and rage- our bodies switch to fight or flight mode- which can be really helpful when being chased by a lion- but less helpful when it is the primary mode of functioning. The physiologic changes are associated with heart attack, stroke, headaches, and digestive problems as well as depression and anxiety.
Are we not perhaps, seeing the results of this tactic showing up in both the metaphorical and physical body politic? Isn’t it possible that a steady diet of fear and anger combined with a bleak job market and fraying social safety net have contributed to these deaths of despair?
If this is the case, we are all in for a lot of hurt. Because it’s worth noting that the policies that Republicans wants to put into effect will actually make the lives of these Trump voters even harder. Dismantling what remains of our social safety net won’t improve the lives of these Americans. It will only make their lives worse.
Sadly, there is a very real chance that these Americans will not connect their plight to Republican policies. Tuned into Fox news and other conservative outlets, they will be whipped into a rage against some “other.” Their lives will not improve. Exhausted by anger and rage, they will continue to succumb to deaths of despair. And if the GOP has its way, they will bring us along with them.